Baby’s got brain: Neurodevelopment in early childhood
Have you ever felt as though, from moment you laid eyes on him, your baby had you wrapped around his little finger? The truth isn’t that far off... From birth, your baby relies on you to meet his physical and emotional needs—and it doesn’t take long for him to learn that his actions elicit an almost immediate response. He cries, you feed him. He fusses, you put him down for a nap. He smiles, you smile back. This type of give-and-take relationship stimulates brain development, providing an optimal environment for making sense of the world.
Brain development begins in utero
A complex machine that begins to develop in utero, the brain is made up of billions of nerve cells known as neurons. And just as your baby is born with the need to connect with you, these neurons need to connect with each other to form networks that correspond with various skills.
Early experiences affect brain development
Because the brain is highly sensitive to stimulation from the environment in the first few months and years of life, what your baby experiences during this time has the greatest impact on his neurodevelopment. Simply put, your baby’s early experiences shape how his brain develops.
A whole new world to discover
Making the transition to the outside world from the safety and familiarity of the womb is no small feat. Despite the pull of gravity and an overwhelming amount of sensory stimuli, most babies are preprogrammed to master gross motor skills like head control, rolling over, sitting up, creeping, crawling and standing within the first year of life. As your baby achieves each of these “neuroevolutionary” stages, he becomes more aware of his body and how it moves against gravity.
The impact of natural parenting approaches
Babywearing, breastfeeding and floor play are a few ways that you can help your baby adapt to life outside the womb. While being carried, fed and played with, your baby builds relationships that allow him to explore the world around him. These relationships provide the stimulation he needs to promote early brain development. Close proximity allows you to be in tune with your baby’s needs and wants, and how you respond to his needs helps create brain connections that provide a strong foundation for regulating emotions as he grows older.
Other ways to stimulate brain development
While the neuroevolutionary process occurs naturally in newborns, different experiences can cause the brain to develop in different ways. If problems or difficulties arise in a child's development—whether due to genetics or the environment—there are a variety of neurodevelopmental, cognitive and task-specific therapeutic approaches that can help stimulate brain development. When in doubt, consult a pediatric occupational therapist.